Monday, March 12, 2018

Easy Cantonese hotdish

Leftovers can be the perfect starting point for a creative yet utterly delicious dinner. Case in point: what do you do with a handful of cooked mild fish? Turn it into sandwiches? Feed it to the cat? If you’re like me, you’ll happily transform this into a Cantonese casserole, otherwise known as a bao.

Good, cheap Hong Kong-style restaurants will often offer you a page filled with bao dishes because this is a lovely way to eat. In a way, this is very similar to a Midwestern hotdish because it’s a complete meal, served piping hot, and usually is constructed out of cheap cuts of meat combined with things like bean curd (aka doufu or tofu), mushrooms, vegetables, and an interesting starch, like taro.
Doufu sliced into batons

A bao is homey stuff. In fact, this should be the sort of thing a mom would make during cold weather when she’s rummaging around in the refrigerator drawers, looking for odds and ends to put together for dinner. 

It’s definitely not banquet food, and probably not something you’d serve to fancy company. Rather, look on bao as a way to feed your family with the least amount of money and effort.

Today’s recipe is like that. Use what you have and wing the rest. For example, I call for firm doufu here, but silken can be used instead—just be sure not brown it, but rather add it at the end along with the fish, since it only needs to heat through. Don’t like fish or just don’t happen to have any hanging around? No problem. Toss in some leftover roasted duck, shredded chicken, extra vegetables, or whatever you want. It’s all good.
Drain it on paper towels

The only thing you need to keep an eye on is the timing and the moisture. Certain ingredients like mushrooms, onions, taro, and firm bean curd need time to cook down, and this requires more liquid to the mix, since it boils away after a while. Tender things, though, should be added at the last minute, much like the green onions and leftover fish here. A minute or two is plenty of time for them to get heated up, but it’s not enough time for them to cook down into nothingness.

It’s really helpful if you have a small sandpot to work with, as just the looks of a lovingly used one is enough to get my appetite roaring. When you’ve had a workhorse of a sandpot for a couple of years, the bottom will look crazed and gunked up. That’s a good sign. It means that while the pottery cracked over time, the juices of whatever was inside the pot leaked out and formed a waterproof seal. I just love the way this happens and try to make my sandpots last for years until there is more gunk than pottery.
Fry up the bean curd for better texture

So, if you have a sandpot, wash it carefully by hand when you’re through and always let it air dry. Also, don’t give it too rigorous a scrubbing on the outside, but rather a simple swipe with the sponge, as you want to encourage that natural glue to keep the pot in one piece.

Cantonese bean curd and fish casserole
Dòufú yúpiàn bào 豆腐魚片煲
Serves 2 to 4

1 block (about 14 ounces | 400 g) firm or extra-firm bean curd
The gunk on my sandpot bottom
5 tablespoons | 75 ml peanut or vegetable oil
Half a yellow onion
6 thin slices ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup | 60 ml mild rice wine (like Taiwan Mijiu)
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups | 500 ml water
3 or 4 fresh black mushrooms
1 carrot
2 green onions
Leftover fish (about ½ cup | 100 g), or whatever you like

1. Cut the bean curd horizontally and lengthwise into quarters, and then slice it into batons. Lay the bean curd on a sheet or two of paper towels to wick up most of the moisture.

Simmer for an hour
2. Pour ¼ cup | 60 ml oil in a frying pan and set it over medium-high heat. Add half of the bean curd to the hot oil and immediately cover the pan with a spatter screen. Fry the bean curd on two sides until it is golden. Remove to a plate and repeat with the second half of the bean curd. Use any leftover oil for something else.

3. While the bean curd is frying, pour 1 tablespoon oil into a 4-cup sandpot or casserole and set it over medium heat. Slice the onions into thin strips and add them to the sandpot along with the ginger. Stir these around, and when the onion has softened, toss in the garlic. When the onions begin to take on a golden tinge, pour in the rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, and 1½ cups | 350 ml water. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and tear the caps into large wedges. Add the mushrooms and fried bean curd to the sandpot, bring it to a boil, reduce the heat to maintain just a bare simmer, and cover the sandpot. Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 1 hour. The casserole can be made ahead of time up to this point and reheated later on.
Add carrots, green onions, and fish

4. Add ½ cup | 125 ml water to the pot and bring it to a boil. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Peel the carrot and slice it on the diagonal before adding it to sandpot. Cover and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, until the carrots are tender but still barely crunchy. Cut the green onions on the diagonal and break the fish into chunks as you desire, but try to remove any bones you find. Add the green onions and fish to the simmering pot, cover, and heat through for around 1 minute. Toss the fish gently into the bean curd and serve hot.